“Cancelling dismantles whatever has been established: you light a fire and a shower of rain extinguishes it; you feed a stray dog and it’s flattened by a truck.”Keith Johnstone, Impro for Storytellers. New York: Routledge, 1999. p.118
I’ve been using the term Erasure as it evokes the image of someone drawing an ornate image on a chalk board only for someone else to come along and wipe it off, but the concept is a direct equivalent to Johnstone’s cancelling (I just wasn’t introduced to this particular term in my early days so it never stuck). I consider erasing as a subset of blocking or negating with a notably unique facet: erasing usually acknowledges that an offer has been established and sees it for what it is but then elects to push it aside anyway; blocking more often neglects to recognize the intent or promise of a scenic choice and just responds as if it were not so. In both cases, improvisers tend to make such a move in order to pull the scene in their own preferred direction. While erasure is always problematic, it can prove doubly so in short-form structures where time is of the essence. In this fast-paced style of play, when detailed work is set aside there is not always time to replace it with something equally nuanced. Left unchecked, a tendency to erase can literally rob a scene of anything worth exploring.
Player A begins the scene with a palpable sense of excitement. Romantic music plays in the background as they lovingly begin the task of preparing the dinner table for two. A large table cloth is unfurled and then meticulously straightened. It is adorned with a vase of flowers, wine glasses and silverware that were each gathered from various drawers and nooks in the dining room. Player A smells something cooking in the kitchen and darts off for a second only to return with a smile: the dinner is coming along nicely. They go to a cabinet and select a particular and very special bottle of wine, examining the label closely before reaching for the corkscrew and beginning the process of opening it…
Player B, presumably their special someone, enters.
Player B: “I grabbed some pizza on the way home. Don’t forget it’s my game night with the gang from work.”
Some Additional Analysis
As I write this example, there are certainly paths forward that might result in an interesting tension, but Player B’s entrance (assuming that they were paying attention) has seen A’s intent and decided to immediately upturn it. Player A is faced with the choice of fighting for their original premise and intent (which might predictably result in conflict), relinquishing their idea altogether and following B’s concept (which in some ways wastes all of that great opening work), or carefully straddling a line between these two ideas in a way that accepts the game night while maintaining the desire for a romantic evening (which can be quite the challenge to pull off). When faced with an erasure, my preference would be for something of this third ilk when its feasible, but such moments also beg the simpler question, why not just honor that initial instinct of your partner? Why not delight in using all of those great specifics even if the scene ultimately takes a turn further down the road? In an ensemble with strong rapport, I could see such an erasing entrance skillfully executed as a playful challenge, “how can we joyfully keep these two competing ideas alive?” (This would be an example of mischievous shivving.) I think a more common result, however, would just be that of frustration.
If You Feel Yourself Erasing…
1.) Acknowledge. If you sense you may just have been the perpetrator of an erasure a good first move is to acknowledge this (either as the player or as the character). Seeing the beautifully set up dining table honors your partner’s choice even if you have just proverbially stepped all over it. Smelling the delicious dinner in the kitchen (and perhaps naming it as your favorite) keeps these elements present and alive. You may elect to play such moments naively, as if the character doesn’t understand the import, but it should be clear to your partner that the improviser very much understands and appreciates the current parameters.
2.) Shelve. The more details you can track from the scenic initiation the better. Although it’s important to note that an erasure can occur anywhere in the scene, they most frequently show up more in those highly critical first moments. Remembering smaller details – such as the table cloth or flowers as the centerpiece – provides more possibilities for later finesse. Of course such an approach or recovery is less likely if you were not closely watching your partner’s initial work, so such a maneuver reinforces the necessity of keeping our focus attuned to the stage at all times.
3.) Reincorporate. If you’re going full blazes ahead with a new choice there are still ample opportunities to utilize aspects of the gifts formerly erased. As I noted above, this strikes me as one of the few strategies that is ultimately likely to prove palatable and successful. If the workmates arrive for game night but you carefully acknowledge that the table is currently set for two, or need to move the flowers to set up the game board, or offer everyone some of that great-smelling home cooking, then at least the world of the scene is honoring some elements of the previously established premise. If we never get back to these rich potentials, then the improvisational loss is amplified.
4.) Combine. Ultimately, the scene will feel the most cohesive and deliberate if all competing or disconnected elements eventually find some sort of creative logic for coexisting on the stage. To return to Johnstone’s examples in the opening quote, if you discard the need or efforts to light the fire, or the inherent import of the dog, then the erasure has truly removed probably the most cogent and promising element previously established. It can prove tricky to maintain this original idea without it seeming like you are, in turn, blocking or rebuffing the idea of the entering player, but the audience has seen and hopefully become invested in what has already transpired so they will be looking for its continued significance. Combining may take patience in many instances, thereby seeming reminiscent of the strategies of callbacks and curve balls, but the audience gains great enjoyment from this form of improvisational recycling. Perhaps the intended recipient of the romantic meal was actually one of the coworkers?
5.) Post. When erasure occurs in real-time on stage there are often only partial solutions at best as to the path forward. If you are the recipient of this energy or blindness with any regularity I would suggest that it’s important to offer this observation in post-show notes. Your scene partner might be offering such moves in a spirit of mischievousness, oblivious to the way they are creating discomfort or undervaluing your artistry. Or perhaps worse, your partner may have no idea that they are engaging in this behavior at all.
Improv scenes tend to suffocate with excess rather than stagnate with scarcity, at least in my experience. Erasure serves as an example of this former pitfall, as a player literally pushes the idea or work of a teammate off the stage so as to, at least in theory, make more room for their own. This irksome habit is less likely to infect our work together when we watch our fellow improvisers with loving attention, elevate their intentions and contributions, and joyously join in worlds and journeys that are not primarily of our own creation. That is the improviser I am working to become.
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